Girl Model is the most starkly depressing movie I’ve seen since…
Well, see, that’s an interesting question. At a scant seventy-eight minutes, it lacks the sheer mass of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In or Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. But pound for pound, second for second, inch for inch (or, given the models’ contract with their agency, perhaps I should say “centimeter for centimeter”), its despair-inducing quotient is right up there with Surviving Progress or Steve James’s At The Death House Door.
The film opens and closes in Russia, with rooms full of girls lining up to be evaluated by an agency broker, former model Ashley Arbaugh. The camera does a long–heartbreakingly long–pan around the room with girl after girl in bra and panties waiting to be measured, stared at, and judged by the woman who tells us, and them, that “Young is very important for [modeling in] Japan.” Visually, the room is full of light and mirrors, and the fun-house motif is obvious. As if to underscore the theme of craziness, and emcee intones that “modeling requires grace, good communication skills, good manners [….] who wouldn’t want their children to possess these qualities?” He asks the latter question as the camera cuts to the next adolescent getting her bust measured.
From an audience perspective–at least from my perspective–the initial response is a bit of shock at the baldness of it all, followed by anger and indignation, followed by frustration at how quickly the anger passes into fatalistic acceptance.
That it engenders those emotions doesn’t mean that Girl Model is a bad movie. It is appropriately depressing, and while judging by the buzz at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival I was not the only person muttering “put the damn camera down and do something” under my breath, the impulse to shoot the messengers. while understandable, is insufficient. The trend in many documentaries is to be self-reflexive, but given that directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin are the closest things to audience surrogates, I think their inaction is meant to channel and marshal our frustration, not necessarily give it an easy scapegoat.
It would be easy enough to accept Ashley Arbaugh as the sacrificial scapegoat, too, even with her video diaries of misery from her own modeling career. Arbaugh comes across as more wounded than manipulative, her justifications for ushering girls half her age into a life worse than the one she couldn’t cope with meant to convince herself as much as us. In one late scene she visits Nadya, the 13/15/”how old do you want me to be?” contest winner from Siberia who is sharing a modeling pad in Tokyo trying to get work. Arbaugh opens a door, looking at the bathroom (never shown) and dully intones that it is “pretty bad.” She doesn’t ask the girls how they are doing so much as she robotically tells them that they are fine.
Ultimately it is the shield of corporate blame that everyone, including the audience, uses as a thin blanket to make the excruciatingly cold facts just barely tolerable. Is it the job of the rural parents to say “no” to more money than they have ever known, or comb the contract for the clauses stating that their daughters can be sent home if they gain two centimeters on their waist, bust, or hips? Is it up to the girls to show maturity at thirteen that the adults lack and recognize that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t? What do we say to brokers like Arbaugh who could argue that their washing their hands of the profession would remove what little oversight there is in an industry that lives in the shadows of pornography and prostitution? Can all of the blame be laid at anonymous consumers who create the market that makes the exploitation possible? The responsibility gets passed around like a hot potato until everyone’s fingers are a little burned. The most depressing thing is not that nobody articulates a viable solution but that, convinced it would be futile to buck the tide, nobody even tries.
Postscript: It is worth noting that Nadya Vall, the Russian girl whose story arc forms the skeleton of the film, has claimed that based on comments and descriptions of the film, she thinks it has misrepresented her experience. There are enough scenes in the documentary that speak for themselves, that I interpret her statements with a measure of skepticism, but as the number one question in documentary Q&As is always about whether or not the subject of the film has seen it and what he or she thought of the film, it is worth reading the linked article.